Tag Archives: Portugal

Jorge M. Fernandes and Carlos Jalali – Portuguese Semi-Presidentialism after the 2016 Elections

This is a guest post by Jorge M. Fernandes (University of Bamberg, Germany) and Carlos Jalali (University of Aveiro, Portugal)

The famous dictum attributed to former British PM Harold Macmillan, ‘events, dear boy, events’, helps explain the evolution of Portuguese semi-presidentialism during President Cavaco Silva’s second term in office (2011-2016). In a recently published article in South European Society and Politics, we make an an appraisal of the evolution of semi-presidentialism in Portugal over the ten years of Cavaco’s tenure in power and shed some light on the election of his successor – Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa.

After being comfortably reelected in January 2011, with a 30 percentage point advantage over the second most-voted candidate, the political and economic situation of the country presented Cavaco with a difficult conundrum. The EU/ECB/IMF bailout that lasted from April 2011 until May 2014 placed important constraints on policy-making in Portugal. On the one hand, the president could give vent to popular dissatisfaction with the bailout’s austerity – and use his formal and informal powers to voice bottom-up disagreement with the government’s policies. However, this risked introducing difficulties into the implementation of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), which could spark the wrath of the international creditors. On the other other hand, by staying idle, Cavaco faced the risk of unpopularity in public opinion.

Cavaco’s decision to give his tacit support to the implementation of the MoU had an important negative impact in his popularity, which, in turn, curbed his political influence. In the final months of his second mandate he was a lame-duck president, with increasing difficulties to use his non-formal powers. For example, in the turbulent government formation process following the October general elections, Cavaco Silva’s influence, or lack thereof, curtailed his capacities to liaise a deal between the two main parties, the Socialists and the Social Democrats, to form a grand coalition. Rather, a sub-optimal solution, from Cavaco’s perspective, was reached: a Socialist minority government with the tacit support of the extreme-left Communists and Left-Bloc.

Typically, Presidents have been the most popular political figures in Portugal, enjoying support levels above party leaders and other office-holders. Figure 1 depicts Cavaco popularity between 2011 and 2016. In January 2012, a sharp drop in popularity hurt Cavaco’s political influence after his public statements on how austerity would have a negative effect on his personal finances and how difficult it would be for him to pay for his personal expenses. Overall, at the end of his mandate, the institutional figure of the Presidency had its prestige and influence severely eroded due to Cavaco’s unpopularity in office.

Figure 1: Evaluation of President Cavaco Silva’s performance, 2011-2016 (balance between positive and negative evaluations)

Picture1

The 2016 presidential election took place against this backdrop. In addition, the months leading to the presidential election had witnessed the unfolding of some of the most dramatic events in Portuguese democracy, with a difficult government formation process. The presidential election had 10 candidates, an unprecedented figure since Portugal held presidential free and fair elections in 1976.

Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, the right-wing candidate supported by the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats, seemed poised to win the election, with his high levels of popularity garnered over decades as a political pundit in a popular television show. On the left, a myriad of candidates was trailing Marcelo’s lead in the polls, fighting for an opportunity in the second round. Sampaio da Nóvoa, a highly respected academic figure, earned the support of some of the founding fathers of Portuguese democracy in the Socialist Party. The candidate lacked, however, name recognition by median voters, which would have a negative impact on his result. Maria de Belém, a former Socialist minister, launched her bid to the presidency urged by a faction within the Socialist party. The Socialist party and the Prime Minister chose not to endorse any of the candidates. The Communists presented Edgar Silva, a former priest with low public visibility, while the Left Bloc put forth Marisa Matias, an MEP and a rising star in the party. In addition to the mainstream candidates, there were five independent candidates, looking to build upon the anti-party sentiment and to surf the discontent wave grassing in Portugal.

The campaign had a remarkably low mobilization. The hollowing of the presidential campaign resulted from the perception of the irrelevance of the president’s role, ensuing Cavaco’s choice not to help mitigate austerity and to give his (at least) tacit support to the bail-out measures. For all its problems, the role of the president in the political system was not debated during the campaign. Instead, candidates chose to have a personalized campaign, depoliticizing most of their campaign actions, focusing on personal contact with the population and in making a character judgment of the candidates. Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, the leading candidate in the polls, followed this strategy strictly in the hope that this would deflate the importance of the elections, allowing him to be elected in the first round.

On January 24th, 48.66 per cent of registered voters went to the polls to elect a new president, the lowest turnout in odd-numbered presidential elections, which have traditionally been more competitive for their importance in selecting a non-incumbent president. Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa won 52 per cent of vote, with a catch-all coalition. To be sure, his score surpassed the aggregate score of his supporting parties (PSD and CSD), just three months before, by adding 15.1 to the share of those two parties. Sampaio da Nóvoa came second with 22.9 per cent of the votes, falling just 2 percentage points short of forcing Marcelo into a second round, a remarkable feat for an unknown academic figure. Marisa Matias came third, with 10.1 per cent of the votes, yielding the best presidential score in the history of the Left Bloc. In contrast, the Communists had a grim electoral result, with their worst result ever, with just 3.9 per cent. Maria de Belém, the other candidate from the Socialist area, scored just 4.2 per cent, an extremely bad result for the former Health minister. Surprisingly, for all Portugal’s economic woes, anti-system candidates had very modest scores, totaling 6.84 per cent of the vote for 5 candidates.

What can we expect from a Marcelo presidency? On the surface, President Marcelo differs little from his predecessor. Both Marcelo and Cavaco Silva were previous leaders of the PSD; both had the backing of the PSD and the CDS; and both won their presidential elections on the first round with a margin of 30 percentage points over the second-placed candidate. Yet his first months in office suggest that Marcelo is trying to distance himself as much as possible from his predecessor’s legacy. Indeed, in this initial period President Marcelo has actively courted public opinion, cultivated a supra-partisan stance and avoided tensions with the Socialist government of António Costa. This contrasts sharply with how Cavaco Silva’s presidency ended: an increasingly withdrawn and unpopular political figure, perceived by the left as a partisan president and unable to forge the consensus he sought between PSD, PS and CDS – most notably, in the aftermath of the 2015 legislative elections. President Marcelo thus appears to seek to re-establish the presidency after a period of hollowing out of the presidency which also shaped the presidential elections of 2016.

However, the end of Cavaco Silva’s presidency does not solely differ from the initial Marcelo presidency: it also stands in stark contrast from the initial period of Cavaco Silva’s own presidency. Then, just as with Marcelo, Cavaco Silva was an overwhelmingly popular president (with an average balance between positive and negative evaluations of +52.8 per cent throughout 2006) who maintained an ‘above party’ stance and avoided friction with a Socialist government – indeed, so much so that prime minister Sócrates told President Cavaco in December 2006 that ‘we like working with you’. Cavaco’s undoing was largely the result of a deteriorating economic, social and political situation that culminated in a bailout. Marcelo – who is widely reputed as a master political tactician – will need all his tactical nous to avoid repeating Cavaco’s fate, not least as Portugal’s economic, social and political situation remains uncertain and precarious.

Rui Graça Feijó – A New Configuration for Portuguese Semi-Presidentialism?

This is a guest post by Rui Graça Feijó of CES/UCoimbra and IHC/UNLisboa

Recent elections (legislative in October 2015, presidential in January 2016) have changed the political landscape in Portugal. This piece aims to assess their impact upon the configuration of Portuguese semi-presidentialism.

The Portuguese government system has been basically stable since its adoption in 1976. Only once (1982) has there been a constitutional revision that addressed the distribution of powers among state organs. No significant institutional change has occurred since then. Politically, however, the story is more complex.

The 1987 elections returned the first single party majority. This gave the PM a prominent position, which has been characterised as the “presidentialism of prime minister” (Moreira 1989). Marina Costa Lobo (2005) has suggested that the “presidentialization of politics” manifested itself in the enhanced role of a PM who had been anointed with a direct mandate. After 1987, a non-written rule existed whereby the election of parliament was combined with a parallel “election” of the PM, reducing the room for decisions for president and parliament, as if being the leader of the largest party was a sufficient condition for acceding to the premiership. Only one PM failed to meet this criterion (Santana Lopes after Barroso left for Brussels in mid-term), and this was credited with weakening his legitimacy. This rule contrasted with the previous practice (the first parliament saw 4 different PMs). The rationale was that it would counteract the instability of the first years of constitutionalism and offer accrued legitimacy to the leader of the largest party in the context where a new government did not require a positive vote of investiture.

After the 2015 legislative elections President Cavaco appointed a PM who was the leader of the winning (but minority) coalition. The left majority in the House brought this government down. For the first time, the “winner” of an election was defeated in parliament at the beginning of his term. The president reluctantly appointed the leader of the second largest party to form a government with a majority of seats. This was a major novelty. Back in 1982, after PM Balsemão resigned, President Eanes refused to appoint Vitor Crespo who had the support of the majority, and dissolved the House. In 1987, when Cavaco’s minority government was defeated in the House, President Soares refused to appoint the socialist leader, even though he was supported by a majority and called early elections instead. Only in 2004 did President Sampaio accept a new PM without fresh elections – but he made a point of placing the government under special scrutiny and four months later he dissolved parliament. All these instances suggest a critical point in the configuration of Portuguese semi-presidentialism: disposing of majority support in parliament is not a sufficient condition for a PM to be appointed or to remain in office as the notion of “popular election” supposes. It takes the political will of the PR to nominate and maintain the PM in office. This embodies the principle of double responsibility of the PM vis-à-vis parliament and the president (one that is central to president-parliamentary sub-types of semi-presidentialism)

The 2015 elections were held when presidential powers were curtailed as he was serving his last six months in office. Faced with a situation he politically opposed, Cavaco considered alternatives that included keeping the defeated PM as a caretaker until fresh elections could be called, or resurrecting the “governments of presidential initiative” that had been the hallmark of President Eanes’ first term – not unlike solutions found in Italy (Monti) and Greece (Papademos). In the end, he bowed to the parliamentary majority and European pressure on budgetary matters. One of his legal advisers, António de Araujo, claimed that a new configuration of Portuguese semi-presidentialism was emerging: a “parliamentary semi-presidentialism” (2016). However, this may be a hasty conclusion.

For one, Cavaco’s term was coming to an end. If he had still been in office on the day new elections would have taken place, there is no doubt that he would have dissolved the parliament. Secondly, Cavaco imposed strict limits on the government’s programme that were not related to institutional considerations (as President Sampaio had done in 2004), but that related instead to the right-wing agenda he espoused. Finally, the new President, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, who was formally supported by PSD and CDS, was elected on a right of centre platform that was politically different from the one espoused by the coalition with the benediction of Cavaco in the previous legislative elections: he has made it known that he intends to exercise all the powers the constitution bestows upon the head of state, distancing himself both from “minimalist” positions that Cavaco is supposed to have upheld and from the conditions he imposed. Even if Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa is not known for the consistency of his positions over time, as far back as 1984 he wrote:

A few months after the constitutional revision the president had the opportunity to exercise three fundamental powers: the power to dismiss the government, the power to refuse the appointment of a prime minister proposed by the parliamentary majority, and the power to dissolve the Assembly of the Republic […] against the opinion of the majority of the Council of State (1984: 57)

This is the view he most certainly still holds of his powers. It came as no surprise that he said he would “review” his support for government in the fall of 2017 when local government elections will be held. This means he has not relinquished any of his prerogatives, including those that refer to the survival of government.

A new configuration of Portuguese semi-presidentialism is thus emerging: both directly elected institutions – parliament and president – have their roles enhanced. The “election” of the PM has lost its importance. It is clear that more than depending on direct popular support, the PM responds politically both to the President of the Republic and the Assembly of the Republic, and both organs are keen to exercise their full competences. Without implying an institutional modification, these developments amount to a new model for Portuguese semi-presidentialism, where the PM is no longer the only central figure.

References

Araujo, António. 2016. “Semi-presidencialismo de assembleia”, in Público, 13 January

Lobo, Marina Costa. 2005. “The Presidentialization of Portuguese Democracy?” in Thomas Poguntke and Paul Webb (eds), The Presidentialization of Politics, Oxford, OUP

Moreira, Adriano. 1989. “O regime: presidencialismo do primeiro ministro” in Mario Batista Coelho (ed), Portugal: o sistema politico-constitucional 1974-1987. Lisboa, ICS

Sousa, Marcelo Rebelo. 1984. O Sistema de Governo Português, antes e depois da revisão constitucional. Lisboa, Cognitio (3rd edition)

Pedro C. Magalhães – The Portuguese presidential elections of 2016 (or a tough day for party politics)

This is a guest post by Pedro C. Magalhães, Researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon, Portugal

Pedro

Last Sunday, Portugal elected the fifth president of its democratic Third Republic. Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, 67 years old, is a professor of constitutional law and a long time member of the center-right PSD, over which he presided in the late 1990s. However, he’s probably best known among the general public as a political pundit, after having held a weekly political commentary show for many years, first on the radio (in the early 1990s) and then on the TV (since 2000). Endorsed in the election by his own party and by the CDS (a smaller party on the right), he got 52% of the vote (about 2.4 million votes), thus dispensing with a second round.

Turnout was 48.8%. Although slightly above the 2011 elections, this a low figure. First, presidential elections such as this one, where the president does not run (there is a two term limit), typically have higher turnout levels (70% on average since 1976), in contrast with the less competitive cases when the incumbent president runs (60% on average since 1976, 46.5% in the last such election, in 2011). 48.8% this means means it was the lowest turnout ever recorded for an election without the incumbent running. Second, turnout was also low from a comparative point of view. If we start from a list of European semi-presidential systems and look for the turnout rates in the most recent presidential elections held there (from IDEA’s Voter Turnout website), we see that Portugal’s turnout rates have been very low recently. The 2016 rate, although an improvement over 2011, still ranks among the lowest in these countries’ recent elections (see Figure 1). In other words, there is a clear mismatch between the important powers enjoyed by the Portuguese president —including, among others, the discretionary ability to dissolve parliament, appoint the Prime Minister, veto legislation and refer bills and laws to the Constitutional Court — and the level of electoral mobilization reached in recent elections.

Voter_Turnout_in_presidential_elections_for_latest_election_2016-01-26-2

Part of the explanation may be structural, as turnout has been decreasing throughout in Portugal both in legislative and European elections. However, some specificities of the election may also account for this. Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa presented a campaign budget of 157.000 euros (170.000 US dollars, 119.000 British pounds), a ridiculously small amount. Contrary to common practice, there were no campaign billboards or posters of him to be seen across the country. That a candidate can win a presidential election without any major conventional mobilization efforts is interesting and deserves attention. Part of the explanation is that Rebelo de Sousa started out with a stratospheric advantage over all other nine candidates in terms of public notoriety, fed by a decade and a half of television appearances and reinforced by discrete year-long ground efforts near local chapters of the PSD. For him, “lowering the heat” to the bare minimum was clearly the preferable strategy, decreasing the salience of the campaign and thus making it as hard as possible for his opponents to overcome their notoriety gap. Besides, he also understood quite soon that he was not the preferred candidate of his own party’s leadership. The PSD continued throughout most of 2015 to toy around with the possibility of endorsing Rui Rio (former mayor of Oporto) or even Durão Barroso (former EU Commission President). Thus, Marcelo had to impose himself to his own party. This he ultimately achieved, after all potential opponents withdrew. But he still could not count with the mobilization efforts of the PSD party machine, and he knew it.

After having meticulously distanced himself from the PSD/CDS center-right cabinet in his political commentaries throughout the last year, he also proceeded to make himself as palatable as possible to the centrist and even center-left electorate. After the tense and polarized political environment that followed the October 2015 legislative elections — which included the fall of a new short-lived minority PSD-CDS government and its replacement by a PS minority cabinet supported in parliament by the Left Bloc and the Communist Party — Rebelo de Sousa avoided taking strong stances on almost all of the issues raised during those last months, refusing to commit to any systematic opposition to the left-wing government and presenting himself as a moderate president aiming at “reconciliation”. “I am the left of the right”, he said. If pre-election polls are to be trusted in this regard, he did manage to broaden his appeal to a segment of the leftist electorate, while remaining hegemonic among PSD and CDS voters. The latter were probably too concerned with the possibility of ending up with a left-wing president alongside the current left-wing government to care about Marcelo’s unwillingness to cater to their disappointment with recent political developments. It is true that, as he started dropping in the polls (from about 62% in late December to 53% in the last week of the campaign), some feared that his moderation and his effort at “lowering the heat” of the campaign would end up in a failure to mobilize his support base and avoid a second round. But these fears were unjustified.

The Socialist Party (PS) ended up not officially endorsing any candidate, and the party cadres divided their support between Sampaio da Nóvoa (a left-wing independent and former Rector of the University of Lisbon) and Maria de Belém (a former Socialist minister). Together, they got no more than 27% of the vote, about 1.25 million votes, five percentage points and almost 500.000 votes below the (already disappointing) result of the Socialists in the October 2015 election. Belém’s result (4.2%) was particularly catastrophic, and certainly not alien to a controversy in the late campaign about her opposition to the withdrawal of a life-time subsidy for MP’s. However, her lag vis-à-vis Sampaio da Nóvoa had started earlier, and in a sense also seems to be linked to the general theme in this campaign: while Rebelo de Sousa became president regardless of his own party, “party” did next to nothing for Belém, with many Socialist voters turning their hopes instead in the direction of the independent Sampaio da Nóvoa. A 27% aggregate result is worrying for the Socialists. However, it is also a reflection of Rebelo de Sousa’s “long campaign” strategy: becoming a seemingly unbeatable favorite from early on, he conditioned everybody else’s response, including the PS’s. The Socialists failed to find a single strong candidate willing to challenge Marcelo and ended up with two people that, regardless of their personal merits, are political lightweights. One thing could have seriously derailed Marcelo’s strategy and its repercussions to the overall campaign: if former Socialist PM António Guterres, currently UN High Commissioner for Refugees, had decided to jump into the fray. But Guterres seems instead interested in a candidacy for UN Secretary General and, if that fails, there are interesting and highly prestigious non-political jobs waiting for him back in Portugal.

Finally, a note about the performance of the candidates supported by the Left Bloc (BE) and the Communist Party (PCP). Marisa Matias, from the BE, got about 10% of the vote. That’s 460.000 votes, merely 30.000 below the score of the BE in October (in a more participated election) and 170.000 more than the best BE presidential candidate ever. This contrasts starkly with the abysmal performance of the Communist Party candidate, Edgar Silva, a virtually unknown former priest: 4% of the vote, the worst result ever by a candidate endorsed by the PCP. This result confirms and expands that of the 2015 legislative elections, where the BE clearly surpassed the Communists. Whether this means that the BE will be finally able to overcome the past volatility of its electoral base and definitely replace the Communist as the main party to the left of the PS remains to be seen, but this is clearly the most dangerous threat to Communists’ role in the political system that the party — the oldest, best organized, and most socially rooted in Portugal — has ever faced. That the survival of the Socialist minority cabinet depends on both the PCP and the BE adds additional uncertainty about how the response of the former to this threat will affect cabinet stability.

In his victory speech, president-elect Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa talked about “national unity”, “social cohesion” and the need to address “social injustices that the crisis has increased, but without endangering financial solidity”. This may sound like a bunch of generalities spoken by a powerless figurehead president, pleasing all sides and alienating nobody. Generalities they may be, but Portuguese presidents have never been powerless or irrelevant. Nor have they been particularly predictable. In 1990, by the end of Mário Soares first term as president, people debated whether it still made sense to popularly elect a President what had turned into a sort of “Queen of England”. But in his second term, Soares quickly proceeded to become the main source of opposition to the government and, since his tenure, more than one cabinet was led to its demise with the active collaboration of a president.

So it is wise not to make any rash judgments on the basis of this victory speech. It is true that, like others before him, the new president will be constrained by the so far irresistible lure of reelection five years from now (all previous Portuguese presidents successfully went for a second term). In the past, this has helped keeping first term presidents in check, forcing them to aim at the median voter and at the fulfillment of the most general expectation seem to have Portuguese have of the presidency: that it should be a vigilant but mostly neutral and impartial arbiter of politics. However, facing a minority cabinet, and with the present level of political, financial and economic uncertainty in Portugal, playing that relatively modest role may become difficult for the new president. At the very least, whenever Rebelo de Sousa needs and wants to act, he can do so as one of the least politically constrained presidents Portugal ever had, having imposed himself on his party, being elected with little help from it, and having no favors from campaign funders he has to pay back. So what kind of president will he be? Unfortunately, now we won’t have Marcelo the pundit speculating about Marcelo the President. Or will we? Even that is unpredictable.

Carlos Jalali – The President’s Role in Government Formation in Portugal: Is Discretion the Better Part of Power?

The October 2015 legislative elections in Portugal have raised the prospect of a significant change in the Portuguese party system. As Lydia Beuman noted in her election report, the election results have raised the prospect of an unprecedented entente between the Socialist Party (Partido Socialista, PS) and the parties to its left, the Portuguese Communist Party (Partido Comunista Português, PCP) and the Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda, BE), to form a left-wing government. At the time of writing, the negotiations between the left-wing parties are virtually complete, with the Socialists and Left Bloc approving the deal, and the Communist Party’s Central Committee deciding on it today.

The prospect of a left-wing government has also generated substantial interest in the powers of the Portuguese president with regard to government formation. Since the short-lived (and ultimately failed) attempt by President Eanes to appoint presidential-inspired governments that circumvented the political parties in 1978-79, the president’s power of appointment of prime ministers has been largely disregarded. Indeed, presidential practice since then has been to appoint as prime minister the leader of the most voted party or list, and all of these PMs then saw their governments successfully invested by parliament. This pattern may explain why Siaroff (2003) classified the Portuguese president as not having discretionary appointment powers since the 1982 constitutional revision. However, as we shall see next, the Portuguese constitution grants considerable discretionary power to the president with regard to the appointment of a prime minister.

So what is the process of government formation in Portugal? The constitution stipulates that “The President of the Republic shall appoint the Prime Minister after consulting the parties with seats in the Assembly of the Republic and in light of the electoral results” (article 187, no. 1). This Prime Minister, as formateur, then proposes a government to the President, who appoints the rest of the cabinet: “The President of the Republic shall appoint the remaining members of the Government upon a proposal from the Prime Minister” (article 187, no. 2).

Government formation follows a standard two-stage process. Thus, once the first stage of government appointment is concluded, this new executive must obtain investiture by parliament. The parliamentary investiture regime is characterised by Cheibub, Martin & Rasch (2015) as a weak one, being reactive, ex post and requiring a negative majority to topple the government. In terms of constitutional conditions, this second stage requires that:

– “Within at most ten days of its appointment, the Government shall submit its Programme to the Assembly of the Republic for consideration, by means of a Prime Ministerial statement” (article 192, no. 1);

– “The debate shall not last for more than three days, and until it is closed, any parliamentary group may make a motion rejecting the Programme, and the Government may request the passage of a confidence motion.” (article 192, no. 2); and

– “Rejection of the Government’s Programme shall require an absolute majority of all the Members in full exercise of their office” (article 192, no. 3).

If a government programme is rejected by parliament, the entire process of government formation is started anew.

As can be gleaned from the constitutional provisions, the president has considerable discretion in terms of appointing a prime minister. While the constitution states that he must do so “in light of the electoral results”, this proviso does not remove presidential leeway. The process of government formation in the aftermath of the 2015 legislative elections bears this reading out.

Having met with all the parties with seats in Parliament, President Cavaco Silva formally appointed the outgoing prime minister and leader of the centre-right Social Democrat Party (PSD), Pedro Passos Coelho, as prime minister on October 22nd. This appointment took place even though the leaders of the left-wing parties (which together have a parliamentary majority) all announced they would reject this government, stating their preference for the appointment of the leader of the Socialist Party as prime minister.

The Passos Coelho government will have its programme discussed in parliament this Monday and Tuesday (November 10th and 11th). Barring a last minute coup de théâtre, such as the rejection of the deal with the PS by the Communist Party’s Central Committee or a rebellion by Socialist backbenchers (both highly unlikely scenarios), this government is set to fail its investiture by parliament. This will trigger the automatic resignation of the government (article 195, no. 1(d) of the Constitution: “The Government shall resign upon rejection of the Government’s Programme”). The process of government formation will then be restarted.

The uncertainty associated to this forthcoming ‘second stab’ at government formation again highlights the president’s discretion over appointing a prime minister. Rumours have emerged in the press that President Cavaco Silva may opt not to appoint the leader of the Socialist Party as prime minister, preferring instead to have a caretaker government until fresh elections can be called (parliament can be dissolved in approximately six months, as the constitution precludes dissolutions in the initial six months after a legislative election – article 172[i]).

The veracity of these rumours is at best uncertain: Cavaco Silva has always been a very guarded politician, and his circumspection is unlikely to have faded in this final (and quite likely most significant) act of his political career. Moreover, judging from the debate this prospect has generated, such an option would not be very popular on the right either. However, the fact that the possibility of President Cavaco Silva not appointing the leader of the PS as prime minister exists (and is being discussed) is in itself a reflection of the degree of presidential discretion over prime ministerial appointment in Portugal.

[i] There has been much talk in Portugal that the current political impasse is facilitated by the fact that President Cavaco Silva is in the final six months of his term of office (which ends in March 2016), when a president is precluded from dissolving parliament (also in article 172). However, even if the President were not in his final six months, fresh elections would still only take place in April/May 2016, because of dissolution is barred in the first six months after a parliamentary election.

Carlos Jalali (D.Phil., University of Oxford, UK) is Assistant Professor at the University of Aveiro, Portugal, and is currently a visiting scholar at Brown University, US. His research is on Portuguese political institutions, parties and electoral behaviour, published in Party Politics, South European Society and Politics and Journal of Political Marketing, among others.

Paulo José Canelas Rapaz – Portugal, the president, and open primaries for the prime minister candidate

This is a guest post by Paulo José Canelas Rapaz

 Paulo José Canelas Rapaz

President Aníbal Cavaco Silva’s Republic Day Speech and the Socialist Party Primaries

On 5 October, Portugal’s Republic Day, President Aníbal Cavaco Silva gave a speech. Similar to previous presidents, Cavaco Silva reflected on “Republican values” (in a very French sense) and the country’s institutions, calling for political and party system reform.

Even if he was not the first to make such a call, President Cavaco Silva’s diagnosis was considered grim and somewhat pessimistic. He referred to people’s distrust in politics, parties and political personnel in particular. He heavily criticized partisan careerism and the parties’ lack of rejuvenation, as well as their preference for political skirmishing and short-term gains at the expense of “common good”. His proposals were as familiar as his diagnosis: a change in electoral law to make it easier to form a parliamentary majority and to increase proximity/accountability of elected representatives, a better higher administration and statutes governing elected representatives so as to attract new talents and avoid incentives for corruption, conflicts of interest or shadowy means of party financing. Finally and above all, he called for a change in politicians’ behaviour so that a “much needed consensus” in relation to Portugal’s difficulties could be built.

Despite pundits’ comments and President Cavaco Silva’s own preference for more discreet stances and backstage action, there is a sense that “nothing new under the sun” in this speech. President Cavaco Silva himself has made many calls for political consensus on public policies and the reform of the political system and has made similar criticisms of Portuguese political life. Indeed, similar calls were made by his predecessors both on specific topics and more generally, e.g. former President Jorge Sampaio (1996-2006) and his Sermon on Politics (03/27/2001). Furthermore, political reform has been demanded by many sectors of civil society, but to little or avail. This is the case for the much discussed, but never implemented calls for electoral reform.

It is also possible to read the same speech as a function of its audience. The official ceremonies of Republic Day usually take place at Lisbon Town Hall – where the Portuguese Republic was proclaimed in 1910 – the Mayor being present, currently António Costa, the new leader of the Socialist Party. Cavaco Silva’s speech might be read as an indirect message to António Costa. The president’s call for political consensus might be interpreted as a warning yo Costa, who has professed less orthodox views on economic policies and who seems more open to political alliances with leftist parties after the next general elections in 2015.

The presence of António Costa at the speech was also important for another reason. He became the leader of his party not by winning a congress like his predecessors, but through an “open primary” where socialist militants and sympathisers voted for a “Prime Minister candidate”. It was a first in Portuguese politics. It means that even if António Costa wins the party’s general secretariat during this December congress, the positions of party leader and general secretary are now dissociated, and maybe the latter is subordinate to the former. Furthermore, even if it is not known whether “open primaries” will be renewed or extended to other parties – as was the direct election of major-party leaders by militants instead of congress delegates in the 2000s – the implementation of “open primaries” has deep consequences for the political system, which the President might not be happy with.

The Portuguese Constitution implements a clear separation between the President and the Government, between the Presidential function, dubbed a “moderating power” (its origin lies within the Benjamin Constant’s “neutral power”), and the executive. The sharpest separation is electoral: legislative elections are proportional and programmatic, the presidential election is individual and declarative. Every President, at least since Mário Soares (1986-1996), has stressed this peculiarity of the president’s legitimacy. The expression used is that the President is “the only personally elected constitutional institution” (“o único orgão de soberania unipessoal”). The President is outside the majority/opposition parliamentary dichotomy. This concept of presidential function is not the necessary result of the Constitution or of path dependence (the King had a “moderating power” between 1826 and 1910). Presidents have found that this way of thinking about their function grants themselves a political role and avoid the unknowns of parliamentary alternation and everyday politics. This non-executive and non-partisan President – making the concept of “cohabitation” inappropriate in Portugal – has its foundation in presidential legitimacy. Every Head of State since Mário Soares has said they are the “President of all Portuguese”; that is a traditional formula. But, also since Mário Soares, they have declared that “the presidential majority ends with the victory at the presidential election”. This is the only declaration of making the concept of the “President of all Portuguese” a reality.

This legitimacy, the president’s role as guarantor of “the regular functioning of democratic institutions” and its powers (veto, dissolution or cabinet dismissal), turns the Portuguese Head of State into a schmittian figure. This reference has to do with Carl Schmitt’s Der Hüter der Verfassung (1931), “the Guardian of Constitution”. It must be noted that, contrary to the idea of a “moderating power”, this conceptual analogy is rarely made, maybe due to Schmitt’s background. Notwithstanding this point, the Portugal’s “guardian of the Constitution” differs from Schmitt’s idea on an essential point: it does not act as a substitute for other institutions’, its functions are regulatory. However, as with the Reichpraesident in Schmitt’s view, the foundation of the president’s role in Portugal can be found in its direct, personal and encompassing legitimacy. For this reason, every Head of State has defended this legitimacy and fought against the “presidentialism of Prime Minister” and the idea that legislative elections serve to choose a PM. This was the case when Aníbal Cavaco Silva’ Social-Democratic Party twice won an absolute majority in the 1980s and 1990s, mostly due to his own popularity, prompting Mário Soares to become more active. It was also the case when President Jorge Sampaio reluctantly dissolved the parliament after PM António Guterres quit in 2001, or when President  Sampaio refused to call a general election after José Manuel Durão Barroso left for the EU Commission in 2004.

One might say that having “open primaries” to choose a “Prime Minister candidate” is a further step in the evolution of politics generally, not just in Portugal. The personalisation of electoral choice, the diminishing ideological differentiation between governing parties, media preferences for personal quarrels rather than programmatic controversies, and the functional decay of political parties. If they last, “open primaries” in Portuguese politics are nevertheless a major de facto political reform, independently from the “political reform” that everyone has been calling for. It even might create a disequilibrium, which might end in the, already precariously placed, “constantino-schmittian” President.

Paulo José Canelas Rapaz completed a PhD in Political Science on the Portuguese President and its protagonism within the Portuguese political institutions and public arena, at Université Panthéon-Assas-Paris II, in December 2012. Currently living in Lisbon, his personal research focuses on European Presidents.

Portugal – Institutional conflict may trigger snap elections

Tensions are mounting between the ruling centre-right coalition and the Constitutional Court after the latter recently rejected three measures proposed by the government in the 2014 national budget. Opposition parties have called on President Cavaco Silva to dissolve parliament and call for an early general election because of the government’s recurrent breaches of the constitution and alleged attempts to influence the court’s decisions.

Over the last few years, the Constitutional Court has reviewed the legality of various austerity measures agreed with the “Troika” – European Commission, European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund – in return for the €78 billion loan package granted to Portugal in May 2011. Indeed, over the past three years the Court has struck down nine such measures.[1] The Court’s latest rejection of three fiscal measures[2] has forced the government to search for alternative measures to ensure the state’s deficit falls to 4 per cent of the GDP this year and 2.5 per cent next year, as required by the Troika. On 12 June Finance Minister Maria Luís Albuquerque announced that the government would forgo the final instalment of €2.6 billion due under the international bailout programme because the Court’s decision prevented the government from complying with the conditions set out in the programme. Portugal officially exited the international bailout programme on 17 May 2014.

The Court’s latest rejection of the austerity measures has intensified the already strained relationship between the government and the Constitutional Court. On 5 June, during the closing of a conference rather ironically titled “Democracy and new Representations”, Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho, the leader of the Social Democratic Party (PSD), fanned the flames by saying that the Court needed “better judges” who should be subject to “greater scrutiny”. The Prime Minister also called for the Court for issue a “political clarification” regarding its decision. So far, the court has refused to do so on the grounds that “it does not need to tell the government how to govern”.

The Constitutional Court comprises thirteen judges. Ten judges are appointed by parliament – five by the ruling coalition, and five by the main opposition party – the Socialist Party (PS). The other three judges are co-opted from other courts according to a selection made by those judges already elected.

The government’s negative attitude towards the Court has enraged Portugal’s main opposition party, the Socialist Party (PS), which has called for the President’s to intervene to maintain “their regular functioning.” Smaller opposition parties such as the Left Bloc (BE) and the Portuguese Communist party (PCP) have called for early elections.

Meanwhile, the PS has itself become embroiled in a fierce leadership battle. Following its poor performance in the May European Parliament (EP) elections, the mayor of Lisbon, António Costa, has (once again) announced his readiness to run for the PS leadership, thereby challenging the incumbent party leader António José Seguro. While the PS won the most votes (31.47%) in the EP elections, the results were worse than expected. After three years of austerity, the PS just received 123,435 more votes than the ruling coalition (PSD/CDS-PP), which came second with 27.71% of the votes. The PS is to hold a leadership election on 28 September.

Amidst institutional tensions, opposition parties have been urging President Cavaco Silva to intervene to resolve the “political crisis”. So far, the President, affiliated to the ruling PSD party, has remained silent. Ironically, snap elections might work in favour of the ruling coalition. According to the latest polls, electoral support for the PS has further declined since the EP elections.

[1]The Constitutional Court declared unconstitutional two provisions of the 2012 budget law and four of nine austerity measures introduced in the 2013 national budget law. On 30 May 2014, the Court rejected another three measures proposed by the government in the 2014 national budget.

[2]The three measures included cuts to public sector wages, pensions and health allowances.